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Making the transition from mission based play?

Started by JB, April 06, 2010, 07:08:34 PM

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[Bah. Sorry about the empty starter post. Something odd happened there and with editing off I can't fix it. Actual intended text below.]

So, I was particularly struck by Ron's observations about 'mission based stories'  in the Legendary Lives thread.

From those points one can draw a fairly accurate description of the games I've been playing in over the last year or so.

This isn't to say these aren't fun games; they are.  Within the frame of mission based scenarios, things are generally well handled: there's usually a decent amount of communication between players and the GM regarding the 'motivation & setup' for the mission so the characters do actually have a reason to go do whatever, and the 'whatever' they have to do is generally entertaining. 

However, as Ron infers, this type of play isn't particularly conducive to generating the kind of play that produces the kind of 'character driven stories through assertive player participation'. 

After reading Ron's post, it occurs to me that at least part of the problem is that although people may want this kind of play, we don't, as a group, really know how to get it. 

One of the biggest obstacles I'm seeing is a lack of awareness of any other options for scenario structure beyond the 'group mission' thing, to the point that scenario=mission.  Prepping a game means coming up with a mission and working out how to get the PCs involved, and polling players as Ron described.

So, to Ron in particular but everyone in general, any advice and/or techniques for moving away from the 'mission based story'?


(Another obstacle to character driven play has to do with some 'floundering' in regards to Players knowing how to create characters with 'potential' for character driven stories and GMs knowing what to do with them if they do.  I feel that's somewhat tangental right now, but I'm not opposed to addressing that as well, either here or in another thread.)

Eero Tuovinen

Me, me, pick me! This is definitely my topic. I even wrote a game, Zombie Cinema, to address this point.

To be more useful, I think that the party and mission are a big obstacle to dramatic play, just like you said. As a practical point one of the first things to do here is to get rid of the party - once you don't have a party you'll find that even if you still have missions, they tend to be rather more cross-purposes with each other, and therefore not real missions. So get rid of the party and assume that all characters have independent concerns and their own scenes, that'll get you 70% there.

Of course the big issue with not having a party is that players will have to sit around watching as others play. This is the big methodological shift in play, not because the GM has to do something difficult, but because it requires the players to adjust their attitudes to play. All players will have to learn how to be audience to each other and how to appreciate the scenes of play in which their own characters are not present. It also means that the entire group will have to learn to be economic about time - you can't forget yourself and waste an hour going through a dialogue with the shopkeeper when you have scene allotments to consider and other players sitting on their thumbs.

A big conclusion I've made about the practical transition to dramatic, character-driven play is that you need to accept that not every player in the group is going to be able to perform the skills required equally. In party-based play this isn't so flagrant, as the more passive players will get dragged along by the crowd, but in character-based play you'll find that some players just have dull characters with no interesting motivations except perhaps a general sort of destructive confrontationalism towards other player characters. There are different strategies in how to handle this; my latest favourite, one I explored in the World of Near, is to allow players to play sidekicks to the actual protagonists. That is, instead of trying to get everybody to make characters fit to the protagonistical requirements of a given game, you might consider allowing a player to make a less important character who doesn't have to participate in anything, really. This way the player gets to do their thing while the rest of the group engages in the character-driven play. Just like when they're part of a party, except the party is just smaller when it's just him and his protagonist. (Note that you can't do this in all games; TSoY allows this due to the game's traditional flexibility in set-up, while something like Sorcerer won't really be equipped to give a sidekick player a meaningful interface into the game.)

Zombie Cinema, as I mentioned, is my school of hard knocks for teaching well-intending but clueless people how to play dramatic characters. Just hit it until your character stops getting consistently eaten by zombies. Another approach that I worked on around the late '90s (and which I really should revive, now that I think about it) is to set up your campaign around a single protagonist character which you'll give to your most dependably drama-driven player to play. You still have a party, but that party is not directed by missions - it's directed by its leader who in turn has big, dramatic goals. Like Robin Hood. The trick here is that presumably other players might find it unequal that this one guy is the only one who gets an important character; for this reason you need to have flexible opportunity in the game for other characters to develop into co-protagonists as well, perhaps breaking out of the party to go their own, independent way. This sort of thing is perfectly feasible in TSoY or Solar System due to how the game already supports both sidekick characters and protagonists.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Just a caveat: it's quite possible to play without a mission-based structure without going as far as 'character driven stories through assertive player participation'.  It is not a binary condition.  It's perfectly possible to have character driven play that is not oriented around anything to do with story as such.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


Houses of the Blooded has Dungeon Crawls!

In managing your Ven's domain, you pick season actions.  One of these can be to explore a ruin.  So you and your eldritch pals leap into a dungeon and despoil it. 

It's fun and can help your Ven get sorcerous goodies.

And it's all resolved in a few rolls.

So, having a game where characters go on missions is perfectly fun.  But the large-scale arc of the game is not about missions; missions are undertaken to aid/set/affect long term goals.


I played in an Unknown Armies game where we were all members of The New Inquisition, T.N.I., sent on missions for the company for the first half of the campaign.

Naturally, the missions went horrifically awry but we brought the files to a close.  I seem to recall that many of our most horrific adventures were set in New Jersey, all of the taking place in the northeastern part of the U.S.

For the second half of the campaign, the GM said that he was getting sick of the mission-based campaign and how would we like to try a more sandbox game approach?  Mind you, this is seven years ago, before folks championed sandbox gaming as some kind of avatar of the old school.  He was talking about Grand Theft Auto and other video games when he brought the term to us.

He suggested that we would be starting a new branch of T.N.I. in Miami, bringing the various occult dukes and players together and uniting them under the T.N.I. banner, or at least setting ourselves up as a dominant force on the occult underground scene.

It was good fun, with a huge gang war starting over a big misunderstanding.  The GM got a travel guide to Miami and we played out of that quite a bit, along with that news article about the Blue Lady, written about the mythology of Miami's population of homeless children.

It was good stuff and because it was talked about explicitly, a nice transition that we all enjoyed.

There is something nice about learning how the system works, the logic of the world's magic and so on through mission-based play and then being let loose on the world in order to build something for ourselves.

Callan S.

Quote from: JB on April 06, 2010, 07:18:09 PMHowever, as Ron infers, this type of play isn't particularly conducive to generating the kind of play that produces the kind of 'character driven stories through assertive player participation'.
I did a bit of a search in that thread and I'm not sure anyone mentions 'character driven stories through assertive player participation'. Perhaps it's not being refered to at all?

I'm not sure anyone actually has to be assertive - it can be quite the character choice to not be assertive. One old scenario I heard was that there are two boats, one is on fire. Your character is on the safe one.

Now even if the character does nothing, it's kind of a statement about what he'd do as the other ship burns.

Now maybe the player himself isn't actually deliberately trying to make this statement and is sort of bewildered as to what to do. But it still qualifies as a character standing there, letting this just happen. Unless you don't want to see that, of course.

Although on the other hand players can try to get into time murk, where they try and break down every little action so as to slow any progress in fictional time so as to do stuff without the other ship furthing in its burning/the conflict progressing at all to its conclusion. I don't know if that's relevant to this thread, but I thought I'd mention it in case.
Philosopher Gamer

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi JB,

I've had my own experience with changing a "mission=story" approach to a "player driven story" approach (two quite different experiences actually). I am however a little hesitant to throw that at you because my groups aren't yours and there is a whole variety of mission-based play styles, varying from heavily railroaded "dramatic" scenarios where the mission works as a plot hook, tailor-made scenarios requested by the players, trivial missions where the meat is elsewhere, to very challenging missions where a lot of effort by the players is required to even complete them successfully.

Therefore, could you explain a bit about your "mission=story" games? What are these games like? What game system do you guys play? How do you know the other players? Are you the only GM / enthusiastic role-player? How do you typically prep your missions, and how do you run them when you guys play? Do the characters have personal stuff going on, and how much time and effort goes into that, as opposed to the missions? That kind of things.

-   Frank
If you come across a post by a guest called Frank T, that was me. My former Forge account was destroyed in the Spam Wars. Collateral damage.


Thanks to everyone who's posted so far.  (I wouldn't normally do a post by post response, but since everyone who's posted so far has contributed something helpful, I'm inclined to recognize you individually.)

Euro: Thanks. I'll have to look into Zombie Cinema.  You also address one of my concerns - in a given group of players, there are going to be differing levels of investment, both about gaming in general and the specific game in question.  You're spot on about the 'dull characters with no interesting motivations except perhaps a general sort of destructive confrontationalism towards other player characters' (and/or NPCs). This is part of what I mean by 'floundering', and it becomes a problem when someone's trying to 'be the protagonist' without really possessing the requisite skills to do so. So for me, the question is, "Since this guy DOES apparently want to play the part, how do I facilitate him acquiring the skills to actually do it in a way that's rewarding to him and the group?"  Passive players are less of a problem, at least in our groups, as the more active players will make an effort to involve them.  It's kindof a distribution of the GM job of 'engage the players', I guess. Only issue there is when someone's not up to speed about that occurring.

Contracycle: True.  I didn't mean to imply some kind of either/or dichotomy between the two styles of play.  As I said, we're largely ignorant about what lies outside 'mission based play'.  As of right now however, I'm not trying to explore that whole territory so much as trying to plot a path from Point A to Point B.   I am curious about what the game you describe ('character driven play that is not oriented around anything to do with story as such') would actually look like however.

epweissengruber:  Also true.  Again, let me say our mission based games are fun, but we're trying to get a different flavor of fun and the mission framework by itself isn't proving to be a good vehicle to achieve that.  I think there's also maybe the issue of where the impetus to have a mission originates.  In Houses of the Blooded, it sounds like it's coming from the Player: "I want sorcerous goodies! I can use them to further my long term goals! I'm gonna explore a ruin!"  Contrast that to the GM saying, "Ok, so you learn that you need some specific sorcerous goodies in order to continue on your quest.  There's a ruin in need of exploring up north that is rumored to contain said goodies..."  (This doesn't have to suck, BTW.  If the players are invested in seeing their characters continue their quest and are interested in exploring the ruin it can be fun. But again, it's a specific kind of fun.)

Judd:  I may have to try what you describe, as that sound applicable to some of our games.  Also, what you say about learning how the system works and the logic of the world (I'm paraphrasing a bit) is REALLY important here, I think.  We're mostly playing 'mainstream' games, and I'm inclined to look for different ways to play those games rather than different games to play, partly because people 'understand the dice mechanic' or 'know who the Mayor of Awesometown is' or whatever.  We've tried more indie style games but the results haven't been especially satisfying or paradigm altering,  and I think that's in large part due to people thrashing around trying to get a grip on the setting or the mechanics - while they're thrashing, the tendency is to fall back on established behavior patterns in play, which can interfere with grokking how to play that particular game or experiencing what actually makes playing it a different experience from other games.

Callan:  The phrase, 'character driven stories through assertive player participation' isn't directly quoted from Ron's thread.  I coined the phrase based on some of Ron's statements and my own understanding of fiction, narrative and so forth, in order to specifically describe a mode of play we're trying to achieve. The quotes were purely for emphasis; in hindsight, maybe italics would have been a better choice, but I didn't feel the phrase needed that much emphasis. Sorry for the confusion.

Regarding the 'assertive player participation' part, take that as in contrast to 'acquiescent, thespian, and not particularly assertive regarding what his or her character actually wants and does'. In the burning boat analogy, that player maybe doesn't decide what his character does at all, he just looks to the GM for direction and emotes on cue. (GM: Paralyzed with fear, you watch in horror as the other boat goes up in flames, yadda yadda yadda...  Player: "The horror, the horror! Maybe I'd do something... if I weren't SO AFRAID!!!)  I'll try to cover this better in the AP description to follow.

Frank: You're dead on asking for more 'AP' in your AP and I'd like to hear about your experiences.  Further description of our games to follow shortly.



Callan S.

Hi again Jim,
QuoteIn the burning boat analogy, that player maybe doesn't decide what his character does at all, he just looks to the GM for direction and emotes on cue.
Well that's what I was kind of getting at - I might be wrong, but I think Ron has talked about people who look to their own cue on what to do and don't look to a GM. When Ron talks about a transition from mission play that doesn't mean he somehow converted acquiescent thespians (as you put it) into people who play their character as they see fit with full author integrity. He just doesn't play with acquiescent thespians to begin with. Or so I gather - double checking with him would be best.

Do you play with people who will only ever look to you/the GM on what to do? I guess the further AP will help out.

Though I will say that I think gaming culture, as a direct result of not having any real procedure to either have fun with or real procedure to critically identify as 'not for us' and to move on from, typically blames players for any proactiveness they do 'Don't stab that NPC...don't stab that other player! No, don't split from the party! No don't talk like that to the big important NPC *glares and implications of being a bad roleplayer* (I know stabbing sounds like crude play, but if it's what the character would do, then it's character driven, despite being crude. And we love Conan, anyway!). So people start thinking being passive and looking for GM cues is good roleplaying. Can they ever crack out of that, even if they want to? I dunno - maybe there's a slim, horrible chance that no, they can never crack out of it? They've had their will broken?
Philosopher Gamer


Callan, as I hope I indicated, you make some good points.  Since the AP reports are taking longer than anticipated, I'll try to address this in the meantime.

There are two clauses in the phrase, 'character driven story through assertive player participation' and I think you're focusing too much on the latter one as the source of our problem, whereas we're actually wrestling with the former. I chose to use the full phrase in an attempt to be clearer, but it's having an opposite effect by distracting folks.

It's possible to have 'character driven story' without the players being the ones driving, for example.  I personally find such games agonizing, but it's a commonly held belief that such people exist who play games this way and enjoy it.

Conversely, just because you have active players doesn't mean you have 'character driven story', especially if the game setup doesn't allow or especially encourage them to engage in the game in a way to create that, and that's more where we're at.

I'm currently of the mind that mission based scenarios are part of the barrier to getting character driven story from our play more frequently and consistently.  I see a parallel with written fiction and film here; different texts will give the two foci different names but we can call them 'character driven stories' and 'situation driven stories'.  All stories have characters and situations, but most give more primacy to one or the other.  There are certain stories that change completely if you alter one or more characters.  There are other stories where the situation the characters are in has more bearing on the plot than the nature of the characters themselves.  (For whatever reason, the majority of the film and fiction that has inspired/influenced RPGs over the years falls in the latter category as well.)  When you set up a situation driven story, in order to shift the emphasis to a character driven story, one must, to again misquote/paraphrase, 'abandon or subvert the goings on'.  It's true in fiction and it's true at the game table.  My guess is that it's easier to just set up for a character driven story to begin with, but we don't grok how to do that yet, nor do we have a reliable means to consistently 'abandon or subvert the goings on'...

Hope this helps.  The APs are coming, and should clarify further as well.


Eero Tuovinen

Looking at your goal, JB, I notice that the practical answer to your question might simply be to get a new game. If I understand it, your problem is mostly the lack of a framework that'd show your group the way to a drama-oriented procedure of play. That's what games are for, so you'll just need to pick up a clear game text that gets explicit about how to set up a non-traditional campaign.

There are many games that are pretty clear about how to accomplish the goal, but I'd say that Trollbabe is probably one of the clearest. It's worthwhile in many ways even if your group hates women, for the structural advice alone. Depends on how set your group is on a specific genre and style of play - there might be some game that's just right for you, and clearly written.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


So I started writing APs of some games we're playing and have played in the past year or so.  These reports ended up being excessively long and filled with too much information that's irrelevant to anyone but me, so at this point I'm not going to post them per se.   I'm providing an overview of our games for the benefit of Frank and anyone else who's interested.

I am glad I wrote the APs though, as in doing so some things became apparent to me that may help us improve our games.  Basically, I'm starting see where some of our procedures of play are hindering us in this regard, and how they might be changed to better allow and encourage this kind of play.  I see the following two things as being necessary to make the transition.

1) Better procedures for communicating about the game. We need some method of distinguishing between elements in the character's background that the player wants to be part of the present as well, and stuff they want to stay in the background.  As the GM, if left to guess about this stuff I'll probably just let it all lie rather than risk upsetting someone if I guess incorrectly, and I imagine the other GMs feel the same way. For example, in games with 'disadvantages', say '+5 pts, Dependent NPC', the rules may exhort the GM to threaten said NPC regularly or whatever, but in actual practice, there's this tendency to largely disregard those kinds of things on the character sheet because of bad past experiences. 

So we need a way for players to say, "I so put this on the character sheet BECAUSE I'm ok with it coming into play.  In fact, I want it to come into play!" or, "I want this stuff to remain in the background.  (I think of the intro to Everybody Loves Raymond, where he tells us that he has two kids, and then states that "This show isn't about them." - and he's dead right.  The character needs to have the kids, as they inform who he is and so play into his interactions with everyone else, but we hardly ever see the kids or learn very much about them. There's a 'relationship' there, but it's not one that's explored much, because that's not what the show is about.) 

Right now I'm thinking maybe some kind of 'player requested scene' procedure may work, as well as some actual session time dedicated to talking about the game rather than this occurring haphazardly before, after, and in between sessions.

2) Adjust our attitudes about 'non group actions and scenes',  and the 'party mentality' in general, just like Eero says.  In our group it's considered bad form to put the other players in the position of sitting around watching while one person plays.  I understand where the attitude comes from and have espoused it myself, but it's a hinderance rather than helping in this situation.  Again, just communicating and putting this out in the open may help.

Finally, Eero: I got Trollbabe a while back, so I'm rereading it now.  Thanks once again.



Frank, here's the basic 'group bio'.

Our group is fairly large, say about 10 or so people that I know well and play with often,but includes more people I know less well and have played with occasionally; friends of friends and so forth.  With a group this large, obviously not everyone plays in every game - who's playing in a given game is going to depend on schedules, personal interest in the specific game and so on.  As a plus, we have a lot of games: I play in two right now, and if I just count other games that people from those games are also playing in there are about 10 games running right now, although it's unusual for any one person to be playing in more than two or three of them.  Individual games tend to still be pretty large;  one of the games I'm playing in has seven people, the other has nine.  Again, because of the size of the groups, it's not uncommon that someone can't attend; unless that person is GMing or an overwhelming majority of players are absent, it's not generally cause to cancel a game.  Groups still ascribe to the 'long running campaign' ideal; most games will run for at least a couple months, and games running for a year or so aren't uncommon.  Game sessions tend to be weekly, and last about 4 hours per session.

What are these games like? The GM basically gives the party an objective to try and achieve. The option to refuse the mission and do something else is there in some games but everyone's also aware that it's more likely to be fun if we play along than if we monkeywrench what the GMs prepped, so if the mission doesn't appeal to someone the general tendency is for a player to just say so rather than trying to 'fix' the game IC.    The difficulty and complexity of the mission depends on who's running, and to an extent, who's playing; some people run harder games or want harder challenges than others. We've had 'tailor-made scenarios requested by the players, trivial missions where the meat is elsewhere, very challenging missions where a lot of effort by the players is required to even complete them successfully' and so on.  The 'heavily railroaded "dramatic" scenarios where the mission works as a plot hook' aren't popular, but they still show up from time to time. 

What game system do you guys* play? There are a bunch (again, ~10 games going right now), but they're mostly mainstream/traditional design games. Quite a few people favor 'setting heavy' games like Fantasy Flight's Warhammer40K stuff, Shadowrun, and the like.  We've tried DitV and Burning Wheel, but so far those games have delivered more frustrating "Are we doing this right?" moments than anything else.

How do you know the other players? I met them thru gaming. Most of the people I'm currently playing with I would now count as friends, and we do other stuff together besides play RPGs.

Are you the only GM / enthusiastic role-player?  No and no.  There are some people who GM a lot, some who GM occasionally like myself (I'm not GMing anything right now), and some people who 'just play'. I don't know anyone who 'only GMs' though.  Individual enthusiasm may fluctuate by the day and the game of course, but everyone involved is pretty devoted to the hobby; I think if anyone would rather be doing something else, then they actually would be.

How do you typically prep your missions, and how do you run them when you guys play?  I don't really enjoy running long games consisting of missions so I don't do it super often.  When I do, my prep usually involves coming up with a location, some NPCs, and some objective for the PCs to shoot for. I'll try to come up with an obvious, plausible rationale for the PCs to 'go there and do that' to give the players an excuse to become involved, and think up and stat out some potential challenges/opponents.  Running the game means presenting the players with the opportunity to 'do something' and then giving them free rein within the 'bounds of the game' to accomplish it while presenting them with obstacles to doing so. How they want to approach overcoming those obstacles is again up to them.

Do the characters have personal stuff going on, and how much time and effort goes into that, as opposed to the missions?  No personal stuff going on.  Some people put a fair amount of time into giving characters 'potential' for personal stuff to be going on; I know I do, and from what I've seen other players do as well.  But there's a disconnect in terms of getting this stuff 'off the character sheet' and into the game. That disconnect is a BIG part of what we're struggling with, I think.

* It is mostly guys, but there are usually a couple gals playing in a given game as well.


Hmm, I'm still not greatly enlightened about what it is you want exactly, not least because analogy to stuff that goes on in novels and the like has to be pased qwuite differently in RPG, IMO.  There are several ways I could read what you wrote and each requires an assumption on my part about what you meant.

There are some things to remark on though.  There was quite a lot of diuscussion about representation of characters on sheets a while back; probably, if it's not meant to come up in play, it shouldn't be on the sheet at all.  That is, it would be quite reasonable to have a character who had off-screen dependents.  This would come up in narration and IC speaking, but does not exist mechanically.  It's likely that the shift you need to make is from seeing the character sheet as a whole description of the character, to instead seeing it as an interface with the game itself.  So, stuff only goes on the sheet if it is to be used, not merely for the sake of completism.

For mission structures, one effect I have encountered is that if the general structure of play is to travel to some far away place to do some thing, this effectively always makes the characters strangers in their local surroundings.  They're just passing through, they are not invested or interested in stuff that may impnge upon those surroundings, except inasmuch as it affects them.  And this means, they tend not to initiate actions based on the locale, buecuase it has neither permanence nor relevance.  It is just detail on the way to the important stuff, and the important stuff always comes from the GM.  It might help to instead do some work on a base of operations for the characters, and to integrate them into the broader setting that way; they may then be more likely to develop autonomous interests in the locality, and thus likely to initiate actions etc.  Don't just treat it as a safe haven, treat it as a venue for action.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci